Thursday, July 26, 2007

NAT: Toward more tolerant humanity

Polyglot babies 'more tolerant'
Leigh Dayton, Science writer | July 18, 2007


A STUDY of newborn babies and preschoolers has revealed that language may be the root of prejudice - and the way to avoid it.

US and French researchers have found that the language babies hear spoken in their first six months of life leads to a preference for speakers of that language.

The preference is so entrenched that by age five youngsters prefer playmates who not only speak the same language but do so with the same accent.

A key implication of the findings - reported in the US publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Science - is that children exposed to different languages grow into more tolerant adults than their monolingual mates.

Linguist Stephen Crain of Sydney's Macquarie University tended to agree: "I've always thought it would be beneficial to expose our children to more than one language," he said. "If they no longer have a prejudice against people who don't sound the same as they, they may be more accepting of people from different backgrounds who don't sound the same," Professor Crain said.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, conducted a series of experiments with Harvard doctoral student Katherine Kinzler and Emmanuel Dupoux of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris.

They judged the preferences of three groups of children. Five-to six-month-old infants looked at native speakers longer than non-native speakers.

Ten-month-olds selected toys most often from native speakers, and most five-year-olds chose native speaking playmates over children with an accent.

According to Professor Spelke, the most surprising result came from the group's experiment with five-year-olds. "The findings suggest that (the preference) has nothing to do with information, the semantics of language, but rather with group identity," she said.

If so, Professor Crain said that may answer the mystery about human languages: why do they diverge yet retain common structural properties? "One obvious answer is the differences are the means by which people segregate themselves by speaking a language which can't be understood by people from the next community," he said.

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